The party we need

Is ‘actually existing Leninism’ the right model? In this edited version of his speech at the CPGB’s Communist University earlier this year, Moshé Machover explains why it is wrong

In the late 1970s, the 80s and much of the 90s it seemed to many that capitalism could be made to serve the people, and that there was no need for an alternative. But this has changed, and there are more or less spontaneous expressions of hostility to capitalism, disbelief in its ability to deliver reform and so on.

Let me mention some slogans that were raised in connection with this sentiment in Israel. Not because Israel is at the forefront of anti-capitalist spontaneity - on the contrary, compared to other advanced capitalist countries, it is one of the least developed in terms of a socialist or a leftwing consciousness. But in July 2011 the biggest demonstrations ever in the history of Israel were seen. They started in Tel Aviv and spread all over the place. One of the two most popular slogans was: “The market is free - we are slaves”. This, I think, is a very profound expression of disenchantment with the free market, with capitalism. The other was: “The response to privatisation? Revolution!” It was a very popular chant. I do not think the people chanting it understood exactly what this meant, but it expressed in some emotional sense what they were feeling.

Something similar happened in various countries, including in the Arab spring which occurred in both the Arab east and Arab west. People started to mobilise against neoliberalism and so on, then they came up against a repressive regime and found themselves demonstrating to remove the tyrant. So the sentiment assumed a more overtly political form in those places, but the underlying reason for this was universal.

Missing ingredients

What is missing is a couple of ingredients which are really two aspects of the same thing. There is no real organisation. The protests were for the most part spontaneous, and the weakness of this kind of action was revealed very quickly. In the best possible case a spontaneous movement is able to remove a figurehead - a tyrant, a Mubarak - but then it dissipates. There could be a coup, or else there could be elections, in which the protestors have no-one to vote for; some organisation or other which does not express the demands of the demonstrators will win because it is there.

In Egypt actually both of those things happened. First of all the Muslim Brotherhood won because it was an organised party that was already in place; and then there was a coup. So it ends with very little. It reveals the energy of the masses, their inventive ways of conducting the debate, but the organisation is not there.

What is also missing is vision - vision of an alternative. And here is my biblical text for this sermon, from Proverbs 27.19: “Where there is no vision, the people are in disarray.” (This is the correct translation; the King James version ends with, “... the people will perish”, but that is a mistranslation.)

Vision means having a positive programme for an alternative society. It is obviously inadequate to be ‘anti-capitalist’. Can you win votes for a negative platform, for an ‘anti’? What are you for, comrade? Do you have an alternative? The other thing one needs is an organisation which pulls together the working class and its allies, an organisation armed with that alternative vision. That is what is missing and it is what we need.

Now, of course, such an organisation needs to give substance to the vision. A vision by itself in some sort of moralistic sense is not enough: we need a method of identifying and examining problems, of analysing society and envisaging how it ought to be.

Marxism fits this bill. I am not saying that Marxism is perfect, or represents the ultimate, never to be superseded body of ideas, but it is the best that we have. And I am pretty sure that whatever does supersede it will also incorporate much of what we have in Marxism.

Almost 100 years ago, in 1915, Lenin wrote a very popular short article, ‘The three sources and three component parts of Marxism’, which I first read in the introduction to one of the translations of Capital. The three component parts of Marxism which Lenin lists are: German philosophy, English political economy (my apologies to Adam Smith), and French socialism.

Let me paraphrase those components a little bit, so that they are less specific in a western European sense. For ‘philosophy’ I read ‘method of thinking’, ‘method of analysis’. As for ‘political economy’, this is the ‘science’ component of Marxism. And in place of ‘French socialism’ I would put ‘vision’ - a vision of an alternative society. In other words, there is method, science and vision.

Comparing this to other bodies of theory, what is in competition? Anarchism? Social democratic reformism? Anarchism, for example, represents a poverty of philosophy, a distrust of science generally and a faulty vision of the future which does not actually make sense - it is unable to deal with the running of a complex, advanced society. It is too atomistic, too dispersed, too localistic. Or compare Marx to, say, RH Tawney, an ideologist of Christian social democracy - he is the best they have, at least in the English-speaking tradition.

Marxist party

So we do need a Marxist party. I would actually prefer to call it ‘Marxian’, because ‘Marxist’ sounds a little bit too much like a rigid doctrine, although I do not want to insist on that. But I do think it would be better for a Marxist party not to label itself as such. I do not mean that it should disguise or hide the fact that it is Marxist and draws inspiration from Marx, Engels, and so on. It should be Marxist rather than calling itself Marxist.

If you look at the English section of the Matzpen website, there is a set of principles where Matzpen is defined as a Marxist organisation, but this is redundant. The principles themselves leave you in no doubt that the organisation is based on Marxist thinking. No non-Marxist organisation could subscribe to them. Similarly, if you look at the Socialist Platform of Left Unity, it does not actually say, ‘This is a Marxist platform’. But if you read it you are in no doubt that Marxists wrote it.

The advantage of this is that it tends to avoid debates about whether Marx said this, that or the other. You have instead to argue for or against each part of the platform, each part of the programme, on its own merits. It is good to educate oneself and educate young members to be able to support or oppose each paragraph, not because ‘Marx said so’, but because it is correct (or not).

That would prevent discussions of the kind which I saw recently in the Weekly Worker around the falling rate of profit, around the arguments put forward by either Marx or Engels in the third volume of Capital, chapters 13-15, about the tendency of the rate of profit to fall as a result of the rising organic composition of capital, which is itself a consequence of rising productivity. There was too much of a discussion on whether it was Marx who said it, or Engels who put it in, or whether Marx thought it at one point in his life and did not later. There was only one contribution that actually argued the case itself - it was wrong, but at least it was arguing about it on its own merits. I wrote an article, also in Weekly Worker, a long time ago, where I gave my own reasons for thinking it is wrong.

But whether Marx said it or not is Marxology. The real question is whether the idea and the conclusion can be defended logically and empirically.

Mind you, it is the science part of Marxism that is in most need of amendment. A philosophical idea can last for hundreds of years and still be very usable - you can find people adhering to very ancient philosophies without much change. But in science that does not happen. No scientific doctrine of the mid-19th century can remain intact today without serious amendment.

The best comparison is Darwin’s Origin of species. Mostly it is right and it has survived very well. (I also think that Capital too has survived very well, but that not everything it contains is correct.) If there is something attributed to Darwin when actually it was TH Huxley, ‘Darwin’s bulldog’, who said it, it does not really matter. What is important is, does it stand the test of present-day understanding of evolution? And obviously not everything does. Similarly you cannot expect every conclusion, every statement of Marx on political economy to hold up today. If it did, that would be very unusual in the history of science. And political economy is the scientific part of Marxism - other parts are more philosophic, more visionary and so on.

So the most important thing is not to label the party Marxist, but for it to be Marxist and to make it obvious to anyone who reads the programme and who follows what the party does that it is a Marxist party.

And we do need a Marxist party, but unfortunately I do not think that it is going to happen any time soon, at least in this country.


In my view there are two major obstacles to it among the ideas held by the people who would actually be candidates to start such a party: that is, people who are Marxists in some form or another. The problem is that among these people there are two commonly held fallacies that block the formation of a mass, united, Marxist workers’ party. One of them is the idea that we need a ‘broad party’; and the other is ‘Leninism’.

I will be very brief on the ‘broad party’ idea, as I want to spend more time on Leninism. The problem with the broad party is that it is based on a compromise, on concessions, which are always made by the radicals to the more moderate, more rightwing elements. This is actually the inherent logic of the broad party and it is proved time and time again by experience; not only our own experience, but also the historical experience. There is an inevitable drift of broad parties of the left towards the centre of the political spectrum - that is in the very essence of the broad party. The other thing that is wrong with it is the absence of vision. This is always the first concession - the left agrees not to talk openly about overthrowing capitalism and replacing it with socialism.

Yet the urgent need is for an organisation with a vision, not the broad party of the kind advocated by various people, including those who define themselves subjectively as Marxists, as revolutionaries. They become defensive about this, and the content of the party that results is largely negative, in that it concentrates on negative and defensive demands, because it lacks vision.

An additional, related problem specific to the conditions of the United Kingdom is the electoral system. A broad party, more than a Marxist party, requires rapid electoral success. And the perverse electoral system we have for the UK parliament erects a very high hurdle and is very likely to result in disillusionment for many people due to lack of success. In European countries where there have been at least initially successful broad parties, including the Scottish political arena, there has been a proportional, or a more proportional, electoral system than we have in the UK.

I want now to come to Leninism. In order to describe the version which is inimical to the formation of a Marxist party, I use the term, ‘actually existing Leninism’ - just as the term, ‘actually existing socialism’, was used to describe something which was not socialism at all. ‘Actually existing Leninism’ is Leninism as it is practised, almost universally, by groups who define themselves as Leninist and as it is understood by individuals who consider themselves Leninists.

Leninism, whatever it is, is not a philosophy. I do not know of anyone who would say they are a Leninist because of Materialism and empirio-criticism. Nor because of Lenin’s writing on imperialism, which is part of the corpus of ‘actually existing Leninism’. Here we can see a big distinction with Marxism, which is a whole set of ideas - philosophy, political economy and vision.

No, I do not think people are Leninists on these grounds. ‘Actually existing Leninism’ is primarily the organisational model which is supposed to have been practised by the Bolsheviks before 1917 and incorporated in What is to be done? This model is known as the ‘party of a new type’, and defined by ‘democratic centralism’.

Now, as a matter of fact this understanding of Leninism is common to three traditions in the workers’ movement which are otherwise at each other’s throats: ‘official communism’, Maoism and Trotskyism. All three are self-avowedly Leninist in this broad sense, and they have all understood Leninism more or less in the mould I have described.

Accepted story

The problem is that this is an invention. It has nothing to do with the real, historical Lenin, and certainly not the historical Lenin before 1917. It was invented after the Russian Revolution and became a sort of accepted story. But as a matter of fact this kind of Leninism has never worked, except under very, very exceptional circumstances, for the purpose of creating a mass workers’ party.

The exceptional circumstances occurred when self-avowedly Leninist - ‘actually existing Leninist’ - parties became nationalist movements. This mutation happened to some Maoist groups, and to one Trotskyist group: the only Trotskyist group which ever became a mass party, which was in Sri Lanka.

There were also mass parties of this type in various parts of the world during a short period following World War II, until about 1956. It seemed that during that period socialism - that is, ‘actually existing socialism’ - was winning worldwide. First we had the Soviet Union, then we had China, then eastern Europe - and it was continuing to advance. Many people were impressed by this and several ‘official communist’ parties in various parts of the world - such as Italy and France, but also places like Iraq and Indonesia - were boosted as a result.

But for the most part, in all other cases, there were not mass parties, but a mass of parties. These Trotskyist groups multiplied like amoebas. And this is not a coincidence - it did not happen by chance. This fissiparousness is inherent in the model. It is a model for creating fissiparous sects.

So if we give up on the idea of ‘actually existing Leninism’, then what about genuine Leninism? After all, we reject ‘actually existing socialism’ and we have genuine socialism: it never actually got to be implemented, but as a concept it is there before the Russian Revolution, during Stalinism, and afterwards. When one describes oneself as a socialist or even a communist, this is what one means. So what about adopting the genuine Leninist model of a party?

The trouble is that, whereas there is something like genuine socialism, there is no such thing as the genuine, specifically Leninist model of a party. Like the dagger that Macbeth saw before him, it is a phantom.

How do we know it is a phantom? Because we have read Lars T Lih on the true understanding of What is to be done? and it turns out that Lenin did not have any special model of organisation except in one sense. The main basis of his thinking about the party was the Social Democratic Party of Germany of the Second International, but, being thinking revolutionaries, he and his comrades adapted this model to the specific, existing conditions of tsarist Russia. So what is really specifically Leninist about this model is something that we do not need - we are not living in tsarist Russia. And if what we think we need is the model of German social democracy, then, while I do not think this fits modern conditions either, it is a good starting point for modification in line with those conditions. And if that is what we need then there is nothing specifically Leninist about it. It is a democratic party model, which allows factions, which accepts resolutions by majority vote, etc.

What about democratic centralism? Well, I cannot say that there is no such thing. The trouble is that there are several such things, and not in the sense that they are imaginary or that they are a concoction by Zinoviev. Historically it was understood in several different senses, including by the Bolsheviks themselves.

So if you say, ‘Our party is democratic centralist’, it does not absolve you from having to explain what you mean by this, and it certainly should not absolve you from arguing the case on its own merits - on why, for example, it is best to take decisions by majority vote. Why not unanimity, or super-majority, which in fact are very anti-democratic, but which are popular ideas now. Or the idea that there must be consensus. Now, consensus does not literally mean that 100% of people have to vote for a proposal: it usually means some kind of super-majority. I have previously written about this and I do not want to repeat the arguments here in detail why ‘consensus’ decision-making is actually anti-democratic, why this is not the rule of the majority, but gives a veto to a minority.

The most empowering form is the majority vote, but this requires some analysis. Similarly, why, for example, decisions that involve or apply to the whole organisation should be taken centrally and not through some sort of federal voting system. Again, this requires its own justification: it is not enough to simply say ‘democratic centralism’.


There is a third sense of Leninism which is, I think, distinct from these other two. It is something I have gone through and I think the CPGB has too. I am referring to a kind of gestural Leninism to signify that one is not or no longer a Stalinist. If you had asked me 50 years ago, I would have said, yes, I am a Leninist. And what I would have meant by that is ‘Stalin bad, Lenin good’. And this is a healthy position to take. There is no continuity between Lenin and Stalin, as the enemies of Marxism allege - both the right wing and the anarchists. That is wrong.

I used to be a Stalinist. I was a member of the Israeli Communist Party until I was expelled for questioning some basic tenets. And I believe the present CPGB (PCC) started as a Leninist tendency within the ‘official’ CPGB and then adopted a gestural Leninism. This denoted something positive - it is not something to be ashamed of. But it was only a start and should be regarded as a first approximation.

While there is no continuity between Lenin and Stalin, Stalin did head a bloody counterrevolution - this is something one has to insist on. It was a bloody counterrevolution which in order to legitimise itself claimed to be a continuation of Leninism, of what it was to be a Marxist. It published Marxist literature (to its own detriment, because some people actually read it and took it seriously). But it is also true that a lot of the decisions that were taken by Lenin, and by others who agreed with him, made Stalinism more possible: they unknowingly paved the way. I refer to Simon Pirani’s book on that period, The Russian Revolution in retreat, 1920-24. You may disagree with some of what he says - I do not know, as I am not a historian of this period - but actually he raises some very important issues, which I think have to be taken seriously. That is not to say, ‘Lenin bad’; it is not to make a villain out of Lenin, who deserves every respect from Marxists. But even beyond that one has to ask if there was something in the thinking of Lenin before 1917 that made such wrong decisions possible.

And I think that there was and that this was not unique to Lenin. You cannot blame Lenin individually: it was generally the case almost totally in the Second International, except that, unlike other leaders of the Second International, he actually became part of a ruling state. I think there was in Lenin’s thinking a weakness in the attitude to democracy.

No-one was more in favour of democracy than Lenin - again, I refer to Lars Lih, who repeatedly quotes Lenin on the need for democratic rights like the need for “light and air”. That is Lenin’s stock expression. However, if you read carefully, there is a feeling that this is a purely instrumental attitude to democracy. In other words, we need democracy in order for the workers’ movement to become strong, in order to win power. There is no sense - and here I may be wrong and doing an injustice to some leaders of the Second International, including Lenin - of any advocacy of democracy as an aim, as an inherent and inseparable part of socialism. That is to say, I would define socialism in part as the generalisation of democracy; its extension into all spheres of social life.

We live under a limited, crippled democracy which is confined to an alienated political sphere. In most of social life, the so-called ‘economy’, there is no democracy at all - there is the micro-tyranny of each enterprise and the macro-anarchy of the market. Socialism is about not only extending democracy, but the extension of democracy into all spheres of social life - especially to ‘the economy’, which presently has none at all.

But I do not get the sense that this idea was really internalised by the Second International. And the fact that when Lenin and the Bolsheviks came to power they did not have this conception among their aims was, I think, detrimental.

This gestural Leninism was understandable, and I do not regret having defined myself as a Leninist in my youth, but I think today, while not making a villain out of Lenin, one has to be a little more critical about him. And that, of course, applies to Trotsky and other communist leaders as well.